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Teachers Union Spends Big on Buono Campaign, Tight Legislative Contests

Latest finance reports puts NJEA total above $13M, almost as much as Christie campaign has shelled out

NJEA HQ

The New Jersey Education Association’s political juggernaut keeps on rolling.

With the latest campaign finance reports in, the teachers union has now topped $13 million in spending on the state elections next Tuesday, easily beating all other special-interest spending and almost matching Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign itself, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The bulk of the money is out of its super PAC, Garden State Forward, which has been active for not only Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, with two television ads on her behalf so far, but also focused on helping Democratic candidates in a handful of legislative races that are considered tight.

The latest campaign finance reports showed the group is now up to a total of $11.9 million, in addition to another $1.4 million by the NJEA’s state PAC, according to ELEC. The union had never spent more than $2.4 million on a state election before.

“These legislative races are all really important to us,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, government relations director of the NJEA. “When you look at what has happened to schools and school employees across the country, we have to take these elections very seriously.”

But this seriously, not just breaking but shattering records for the union and all other groups?

“When you look at all the uncertainty,” she said., “you spend what you need to.”

The NJEA’s aggressiveness is nothing new; it has now spent more than $50 million in both political contributions and lobbying since 1999, according to an ELEC analysis. The lobbying in 2010 and 2011 alone, when the union was in the heat of battle over pension reform, neared $20 million.

But this is clearly the year of the super PAC. Garden State Forward's totals make up a third of all spending by the special interest groups in the state this year, and alone almost beats the previous record total of all groups of almost $15 million in 2009.

The spending records come as new rules for campaign contributions continue to shake up elections across the country, most notably the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision that allowed both corporate- and union-backed groups to raise and spend unlimited sums.

After Garden State Forward, the next biggest spenders among the special-interest groups in this election are $7.8 million from the Committee for Our Children’s Future, a Republican-leaning group, and $7.6 million from the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, a Democrat-leaning one.

Factoring in money spent on public ballot questions as well, ELEC said the special -interest totals in this election set new marks in every regard.

“This mind-boggling total of nearly $38 million -- unprecedented in state history -- is more than twice the previous record $14.9 million spent independently on elections in 2009,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, in releasing the latest totals.

“It’s a whole new world in New Jersey politics,” he said.

The NJEA’s level of funding this year doesn’t surprise Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. He said given the issues that have been under debate with Christie, from pension to tenure reform, it behooves the union to protect its interests.

“Teachers have felt very targeted by the Christie administration, and while there has been a bit of a détente, the fact is the base is very mobilized,” he said yesterday. “And with 200,000 members, they play in every district.”

As for the $13 million, Dworkin said it is a notable sum -- and the election isn’t over yet -- but there is little margin for error when flipping two or three Senate seats could be critical to the Democrat’s control of the upper chamber.

“Might they have gotten the same result if they spent $7 million?” he asked. “Sure, but they don’t want to take that chance.”

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